I don’t know a lot about Tim Keller, except by reputation. He seems to be a very fine man, and devout Christian. I couldn’t imagine saying a bad thing about him, but some of you Evangelicals who follow him more closely than I do might disagree. All I can say is that Winsome World Christians are failing to prepare themselves, their families, and (if pastors) their flocks for the world that exists today, and the world that is fast coming into being. Again, I am thinking of the pastor I argued with who believed that he didn’t need to speak about gender ideology to his parish (“I don’t want politics in my congregation”) because, as he explained, if he just keeps winsomely teaching Biblical principles, all will be well.
So, David French. You might have seen his vociferous defense of the renowned Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller. It highlights David’s strengths as a polemicist, and the admirable loyalty of his character … but also his weakness as a reader of the signs of the times. Caveat: David is a friend, and though I disagree with him on a lot of things, I am not joining the Hate David French crowd. I believe David is always worth listening to, even when he’s wrong. And even when he’s wrong, I prefer listening to him make his case with respect and even kindliness than I do people who are on my side ideologically trying to sneer their opponents into submission.
Nevertheless, David is quite wrong here. Let’s get into it.
What prompted French’s essay? This piece by James Wood, an editor at First Things, talking about how much he admires Tim Keller, but how he believes Keller’s time has passed. Excerpts:
Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today’s world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings, and his views on how Christians should engage politics. For years, Keller’s approach informed my views of both evangelism and politics. When I became a Christian in college, both my campus ministry and my church were heavily influenced by Keller’s “winsome,” missional, “gospel-centered” views. I liked Keller’s approach to engaging the culture—his message that, though the gospel is unavoidably offensive, we must work hard to make sure people are offended by the gospel itself rather than our personal, cultural, and political derivations. We must, Keller convinced me, constantly explain how Christianity is not tied to any particular culture or political party, instead showing how the gospel critiques all sides. He has famously emphasized that Christianity is “neither left nor right,” instead promoting a “third way” approach that attempts to avoid tribal partisanship and the toxic culture wars in hopes that more people will give the gospel a fair hearing. If we are to “do politics,” it should be in apologetic mode.
But times changed. More:
At that point, I began to observe that our politics and culture had changed. I began to feel differently about our surrounding secular culture, and noticed that its attitude toward Christianity was not what it once had been. Aaron Renn’s account represents well my thinking and the thinking of many: There was a “neutral world” roughly between 1994–2014 in which traditional Christianity was neither broadly supported nor opposed by the surrounding culture, but rather was viewed as an eccentric lifestyle option among many. However, that time is over. Now we live in the “negative world,” in which, according to Renn, Christian morality is expressly repudiated and traditional Christian views are perceived as undermining the social good. As I observed the attitude of our surrounding culture change, I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient guidance for the cultural and political moment. A lot of former fanboys like me are coming to similar conclusions. The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel can obscure what our political moment requires.
Keller’s apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited for the “neutral world.” But the “negative world” is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues.
You do need to read Aaron Renn’s account if you haven’t already. It’s important to understand why Wood takes the view that he does.
Wood writes in sorrow, and with clear respect and affection for Keller. French responded angrily, though.
Excerpts from his rebuttal:
There are so many things to say in response to this argument, but let’s begin with the premise that we’ve transitioned from a “neutral world” to a “negative world.” As someone who attended law school in the early 1990s and lived in deep blue America for most of this alleged “neutral” period, the premise seems flawed. The world didn’t feel “neutral” to me when I was shouted down in class, or when I was told by classmates to “die” for my pro-life views.
And if you want empirical evidence that New York City wasn’t “neutral” before 2014, there was almost 20 years of litigation over the city’s discriminatory policy denying the use of empty public school facilities for worship services. The policy existed until it was finally reversed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015.
Even growing up in the rural south, I wasn’t surrounded by devout Christianity, but instead by drugs, alcohol, and a level of sexual promiscuity far beyond what we see among young people today. Where was this idealized past? There may have been less “woke capital,” but there was more crime, more divorce, and much, much more abortion.
This misses the point about Renn’s “negative world” distinction (again: read Renn’s piece!). Here is a capsule of Renn’s belief:
In recent decades, the church has passed through three eras or worlds in terms of how American society perceives and relates to the church. These are the positive, neutral, and negative worlds, with the names referring to the way society views Christianity.
Positive World (Pre-1994). Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.
Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.
Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.
Renn is not claiming — it would be absurd to claim — that there was no hatred of Christianity in Positive World. Nor is he claiming that Christianity is everywhere hated. He’s generalizing about American culture — and he’s absolutely right about Negative World. I have far too many conversations with people who are senior within American institutions, both public and private, who tell me in detail what’s happening in their professional circles. I have described America as a “post-Christian nation,” meaning not that there are no Christians, but that Christianity is no longer the story that most Americans regard as explaining who we are. You might think that’s great, you might think that’s terrible, but it’s simply true.
Christians who count themselves as progressive on woke issues — LGBT, race — don’t experience Negative World as intensely, if at all. And, if you have been a vocal Never Trumper, as David French has, you gain a lot of points in Negative World with the people who run it.
Similarly, it’s a mistake to claim that because some social indicators (crime, abortion) are better today than they were when David French and I were growing up in Positive World, that this was a golden era for which Christians like Aaron Renn, James Wood, and me long. The point we make is not about the supposed Edenic qualities of the past. We have always had sin and brokenness in this country, and always will. The world is always in need of conversion, and the church is always in need of reform and repentance. The point was that in Positive World, Christianity and its ideals were held generally by society as something to be aspired to. If they weren’t, the Civil Rights Movement — led by black pastors! — would not have been possible, at least not in the form it took.
Today, in Negative World, not every workspace or social gathering site is uniformly negative, any more than in Positive World, Christians experienced welcome in, say, Ivy League law schools. The claim is a general one. I recall meeting a Portland (Oregon) megachurch pastor backstage at a Christian event two or three years ago, and him telling me that when The Benedict Option came out in 2017, he and all his friends thought Dreher was an alarmist. No more, he said. The pastor told me that the church did not change, but everything around them did. They went from being seen in Portland as sweet, essentially harmless eccentrics to being a fifth column for fascism. He told me that they are now trying to figure out how to live the Benedict Option — and he said that what is happening in Portland is going to come to most of America eventually.
I can tell you from abundant personal experience that very many conservative, or conservative-ish, pastors and lay leaders are afraid to draw the obvious conclusions from what they see around us. I just returned from spending a couple of days at a great conference of the Anglican Church of North America’s Diocese of the Living Word. Such brave and faithful and kind people there, and such inspiring pastors. But in several conversations, I heard confirmation of what I have heard from many others within church circles, and seen myself: far, far too many conservative pastors and lay leaders are desperately clinging to the false hope that we are still living in either Positive World or Neutral World, and that if they just keep calm and carry on preaching and pastoring as if all was basically well, everything’s going to calm down.
It’s not. It’s accelerating, and thinking that it’s not is pure cope. If you have the time, watch or listen to this recent podcast discussion with Jonathan Pageau and Paul Kingsnorth, which touches on these themes. They talk mostly about the totalitarian uses of today’s technology, and discuss at times how this is going to be used against all dissidents, including Christians. Paul talks about the relevance of the Benedict Option, and says we might even need to go further, to the “Anthony Option” — meaning, heading to the desert, like St. Anthony the Great, the founder of monasticism.
Anyway, back to French:
It’s important to be clear-eyed about the past because false narratives can present Christians with powerful temptations. The doom narrative is a poor fit for an Evangelical church that is among the most wealthy and powerful Christian communities (and among the most wealthy and powerful political movements) in the entire history of the world.
Yet even if the desperate times narrative were true, the desperate measures rationalization suffers from profound moral defects. The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity.
Moreover, Christ and the apostles issued their commands to Christians at a time when Christians faced the very definition of a “negative world.” We face tweetings. They faced beatings.
Wait a minute. French is certainly correct that we Christians have to love our enemies, and all the rest. And he is right that far too many besieged Christians today put that aside (a temptation of mine, I confess). But loving one’s enemies does not mean that one should close one’s eyes to the fact that they are enemies, and wish to do us serious harm. The wealth and power of American Evangelicals is something true for this time and this place. It won’t always be true. I spoke to someone at the ACNA conference who told me about a Cuban immigrant he met not long ago. She told him, “I come from your future.” He asked her what she meant by that. She told him that she can feel “in my bones” the coalescing in the United States of the totalitarianism she fled in her homeland.
Over and over and over, people who fled to America to escape Communist totalitarianism say the same thing. This is why I wrote Live Not By Lies: to relay their message, and to encourage the churches in the West both to resist while we can, and to prepare for when and if that resistance fails. The position that American Evangelicals have today will not last. Christianity is in steep decline in America, especially among the young. This, combined with the rising persecutorial sense among the woke left, who run American institutions, means that the road ahead for Christians who have not been tamed by compromise with the world will be a very, very hard one.